In a world divided, one thing we can all agree on is that having a good offense correlates to winning in the NFL.
Since the 2015 Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl behind a dominant defense, every team to reach the final weekend of the NFL season has ranked in the top seven in point total. Last year the only team to make the postseason outside of the top half of the league in scoring was the Las Vegas Raiders, who were 18th, and they snuck in on the final day of the regular season with a win and shocking Colts loss to Jacksonville.
So in the wake of the Vikings deciding to go forth with quarterback Kirk Cousins, we should look at the team’s decision through the lens of what the Vikings have produced offensively and how difficult that would have been to replace had they looked elsewhere.
In Cousins’ four years in Minnesota, the Vikings haven’t met the Super Bowl threshold, ranking 14th, 11th, 8th, and 19th in points. His individual performances via box score or PFF grade have been consistently strong but by ESPN’s QBR metric, which sets out to judge a team’s chances of winning with a QB’s performance, Cousins has consistently been in the middle of the NFL, ranking 15th, 18th, 13th and 14th.
Those numbers are far better than those of bad quarterbacks but not among the best showings in the NFL.
On a recent Green Light podcast, hosted by former defensive lineman Chris Long, NFL analyst for The Athletic Sheil Kapadia said that it isn’t hard these days to find decent quarterback play.
“You look around the league and competency has never been easier to achieve,” he said.
Could the Vikings have found competency at the quarterback position for a cheaper price and achieve similar or better results with this year’s crop of available quarterbacks? It’s a question fundamental to the Cousins decision so let’s find out..
Here are the peaks and valleys (rookie years not included) of the quarterbacks who could have been free agent options for the Vikings this year:
- Peak offensive rank: 14th
- Low offensive rank: 27
- Peak QBR: 59.1 (13th)
- Low QBR: 53.2 (19th)
- Peak offensive rank: 16th
- Low offensive rank: 24th
- Peak QBR: 57.7 (17th)
- Low QBR: 47.4 (20th)
- Peak offensive rank: 3rd
- Low offensive rank: 18th
- Peak QBR: 66.1 (8th)
- Low QBR: 52.0 (19th)
- Peak offensive rank: 9th
- Low offensive rank: 29th
- Peak QBR: 71.0 (3rd)
- Low QBR: 41.5 (28th)
- Peak offensive rank: 11th
- Low offensive rank: 21st
- Peak QBR: 62.0 (10th)
- Low QBR: 45.2 (24th)
- Peak offensive rank: 12th
- Low offensive rank: 22nd
- Peak QBR: 66.3 (8th)
- Low QBR: 56.4 (16th)
Over the last four seasons, Cousins’ average offensive and QBR ranking are 13th and 15th. Out of six free agent QBs, the only one who failed to match either average ranking for at least their peak year was Bridgewater, who came close at 16th/17th.
All but Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyrod Taylor were on rookie contracts when they had their best seasons and led their teams to a playoff-caliber offense. In 2015, Fitzpatrick’s contract made up just 2.1% of the New York Jets’ salary cap. Taylor made $883k in his best year, or 0.6% of the cap.
If the Vikings had signed a veteran bridge QB, their estimated value would be in the ballpark of $10-$14 million, or 5-7% of the cap. Cousins is set to make 15% of the cap in 2022.
Another question to answer is what type of supporting cast it would take in order for a free agent QB to reach an average Cousins season?
It appears to require at least one elite position group and help from the offensive system. For example…
— Mariota had the third best blocking unit in 2016 (per PFF). The following year when he produced a similar QBR, he was No. 2 in the NFL in play-action passer rating.
— In 2015, Tyrod Taylor and Teddy Bridgewater ranked 9th and 10th, respectively, when given a clean pocket and Taylor had the No. 2 play-action rating.
— In 2019, Winston’s receivers graded as the second best in the NFL by PFF.
— Chicago’s offensive line ranked fourth in 2018 in front of Trubisky.
The Vikings wouldn’t have been able to offer top-notch blocking without making moves to improve the interior offensive line’s pass blocking but they did grade sixth in PFF receiving last season and would have been able to offer a top receiving duo, budding tight end and elite running back.
Even with a good supporting cast, a veteran bridge quarterback still would have come along with the risk of falling completely flat. The available group of free agent QBs didn’t always perform well even when they had advantages. The Bills had an elite blocking line in 2017 and Taylor still sputtered. Winston’s best offensive ranking season was a mirage, marred by a league-leading 31 interceptions. Fitzpatrick probably held back a 2015 Jets offense with Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, a top-10 rushing attack and top-10 defense.
We can reasonably conclude that under the right circumstances, some of the available quarterbacks could have produced solid offensive rankings that would likely have resulted in the team winning about half its games without an elite defense. But the odds of a good season are not overwhelmingly greater than the chances Mariota or Trubisky or Winston would have tanked 2022.
Clearly the Vikings were afraid of the worst-case scenario in making the decision to keep Cousins.
The upside to using a cheap bridge quarterback is that it would almost certainly have been paired with drafting a rookie quarterback in the first round to play in 2023.
Assuming the 2022 draft pick wouldn’t play until his second year, let’s look at how teams performed in terms of points scored when playing a second-year, first-round QB (at least 10 starts):
- Chargers — 5th
- Bengals — 7th
- Eagles — 12th
- Dolphins — 22nd
- Cardinals — 13th
- Giants — 31st
- Ravens — 1st
- Browns — 22nd
- Bills — 23rd
- Jets — 31st
- Chiefs — 1st
- Bears — 9th
- Texans — 11th
- Rams — 1st
- Eagles — 3rd
The range of outcomes of the second-year, first-round-pick starters is vastly different from Cousins’ past or the group of free agents. Cousins’ peak and valley are barely discernible from each other (and both are decent) and the free agents are average at best and terrible at worst, while the high end offensive outcome of a second-year starter is ranking No. 1 in the NFL in offense, which has happened three times since 2017. The low end is absolutely brutal, which happened to the Jets and Giants.
There were other first-round QBs like Dwayne Haskins and Paxton Lynch who barely saw the light of day, so the results are skewed slightly. But it’s clear that the highest peak result is easily the second-year QB.
One more question: How possible might it be for the Vikings to produce a top-seven offense around Cousins when he hasn’t achieved those results in the past?
Of all quarterbacks who have played past age 34, the only one who has produced their first top-seven past age 34 since 2000 is Rich Gannon. If we extend that by one year, Trent Green and Chris Chandler led elite offenses for the first time at age 33.
A side note: The only quarterbacks since 2000 to win more than 11 games past the age of 34 are Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Brett Favre, Tony Romo and Kerry Collins.
What does it all mean?
- The Vikings’ offense producing vastly different results that are far above their recent averages, even with Kevin O’Connell calling the shots, isn’t a likely outcome. It’s not impossible. It’s just not most likely based on history.
- With the supporting cast that the Vikings presently have, it’s likely they could have created an average offense with a veteran free agent QB. It’s also possible that free agent QB move could have blown up in their face.
- The route that gives teams a shot at an elite offense without a long-proven megastar like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers is taking a QB in the first round and having their team prepared to win by Year 2. That route could also result in catastrophe.
Since the Vikings elected the most predictable path to a mid-pack offense by extending Cousins, it will be on the shoulders of GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell to find ways to elevate the offense into a stratosphere where they can be considered a legitimate contender. They’ll have to buck history in doing so.